Having a human body is a wonderful resource. Our bodies are: 1. Always connected to and supported by the earth. 2. Always communicating with us through feelings/physical sensations, and 3. A good place to come home to in the midst of all kinds of challenging experiences.
Connecting with these natural gifts can give us an enormous sense of stability, dignity, and strength. Below, I describe some simple ways you can reconnect with your body, and the energy of your life. All of these ideas are most effective when practiced consistently over a sustained period of time:
1) Notice your connection to the earth
Sit in a quiet place (or stand) and notice how your body is connected to the earth. If you’re standing, tune into the physical sensations on the bottom of your feet. Notice how the earth is supporting you and let yourself appreciate and enjoy that support. If you would like you could imagine roots growing down into the earth, and taking in nourishment and strength. Or you might take off your shoes and squeeze your toes, noticing the texture of the rug or the grass under your feet. If you’re sitting down notice the sensations where your body is supported by the chair. Let yourself relax into that support and notice how loving and nourishing something so simple can feel.
2. Practice feeling good in your body
Make a list of things you can do which help you enjoy having a body and which don’t have negative consequences. Include external activities, like: taking a shower, going for a walk, or listening to music, and internal activities, like: bringing to mind someone you love, reciting a comforting prayer, or revisiting a positive memory. Set aside time each day to engage in these activities and gather new ones. Notice how it feels! Use the resources on this list when you feel stressed.
All of these are wonderful ways to have a positive experience of being in touch with your body. Notice how you feel after these activities. You may not be used to experiencing strong physical sensations. Practice letting yourself experience and tolerate all of these feelings. Every feeling you experience is a reminder: You are alive!
3) Refrain from habitual ways you numb your body
We have countless ways of numbing our bodies as a way of coping with stress. We may even confuse numbing with “feeling good.” These “compensations” may include alcohol, cigarettes, overeating, television, obsessive thinking or spending hours on the internet. When you feel tempted to engage in numbing activities, pull out your list of resources (#1). Try one, and see if you can an establish a new habit. Notice how much time you spend in front of screens, sitting or laying down, and how much time during the day you spend being physically active.
4) Practice mindfulness: resting your attention on the physical sensation of breathing
Find a quiet, undisturbed place to sit. Practice bringing your attention to the physical sensations of breathing in your diaphram. It may be helpful to start by taking several deep breaths. Notice the soothing quality of the in and out breath, like a wave washing in and out of your body. If your attention wanders, bring it back again and again to the relaxing sensation of breathing. Over time, your attention will develop more ability to rest with the breath.
5) Practice listening to your body, heeding its messages, and letting it be.
Sit someplace comfortable. Ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” Bring your attention inwards, to the sensations you are experiencing in your body. Notice heat or cold, tension or relaxation, numbness or feeling, stillness or vibration. Practice being with comfortable and uncomfortable feelings. Practicing distinguishing between actual physical sensations and your thoughts. (Meditation can be a great support for increasing your ability to do this.) If you can, let go of your thoughts and stay with the simplicity of physical sensations, pleasant and unpleasant. Balance this practice with comforting activities and activities which help you feel strong and competent.
Sometimes our feelings have important things to tell us about what we need to do to take care of ourselves. Sometimes our feelings are more about the past than what’s really happening in the present. And sometimes are feelings are mysterious… we may never understand where they come from, they simply arise, stay for awhile, and then they’re gone. One of the most profound ways you can make friends with being human is to allow that mystery to be there, without needing to explain or fix your experience.
Experiencing emotions (anger, heartache, fear, sadness) can feel painful and overwhelming at times. It’s important to remember that all the body sensations and feelings you experience are a natural part of being human, and that they serve a very important purpose.
A. Emotions are your body’s way of responding to your environment. They are a good source of information about what’s happening and what you need.
For example, if something frightens you, your eyes widen, your heartbeat increases and your muscles become tense. Anxiety is a similar feeling: You may have tightness in your stomach, feel queasy, or feel tension throughout your body. Basically your body is telling you something in your life feels dangerous and needs attention.
B. Emotions motivate you to take action/respond to what’s happening.
Feelings of fear and anxiety motivate you to get away from or resolve something negative or dangerous that’s arisen in our experience. This might mean running from an attacker, studying for a test, having a difficult conversation, or paying a bill that’s overdue. Have you ever noticed how you might be feeling very anxious about something, and then you take care of it, and the feeling goes away? If you feel angry, your body is preparing you to defend yourself from attack, or stand up for what you need.
C. Emotions help you communicate your needs and the effect other people are having on you
Human beings are social animals. We can read each others’ facial expressions and body language, and in general we want to stay connected. Which means we’re naturally inclined to want to make each other happy! When someone does something that upsets you, scares you, or makes you happy, your emotions let them know (through your facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture) the positive or negative impact they are having. For this reason, if someone is doing something hurtful it is difficult to stop feeling angry until you tell them to stop!
Knowing how to handle intense emotions while navigating your life can be challenging. Here are some helpful things to remember in learning to work with strong emotions. Many of us cope with intense feelings by choosing not to feel. Being cut off from your feelings is like being a sailboat without a rudder or sails. You don’t know who you are or where you want to go, and you can’t connect with the energy you need to get there.
It may be difficult to understand the messages our bodies are sending. Is our body telling us we should end the relationship we are in, or is it saying we didn’t get enough sleep last night? Managing and understanding all these messages requires much gentleness and perseverance, but it is well worth it. Being a person without feelings is like being a sailboat without a rudder or sails.
Depression is often a direct result of ‘putting a lid’ on our emotions. All of the physical sensations and emotions we experience are an expression of the energy of our life force. When we suppress that energy, we cut ourselves off from our own vitality and may end up feeling drained and numb. This does not mean we have to immediately express everything we feel. We need to learn how to make space for our emotional experience while managing our lives effectively.
Anxiety is that torturous feeling that we need to pay attention to something but don’t know what it is. Anxiety often arises when we are so uncomfortable with certain feelings or needs we block them out of our awareness. This may happen because we’ve gotten the message in relationships that some feelings are unacceptable, or that it is safer to pay attention to other people’s needs while denying our own. If we continually block out feelings or needs, the energies contained in them may erupt in explosive anger, crying fits or anxiety attacks.
Here are a few pointers to remember in order to respect your emotions and work with them in a skillful way:
Your emotions do not have to dictate your behavior. It can be helpful to acknowledge and let yourself feel an emotion and at the same time refrain from acting it out.
Sometimes emotions show up right on time, and can give us the energy to respond to difficult situations. At other times our emotional reactions may be heightened or distorted by past
Emotions Aren’t Always about What’s Happening in the Present
Our culture feeds us constant messages that discomfort is not okay. Many of us numb ourselves with a myriad of substances and behaviors, depriving ourselves of the full lives we deserve. Please don’t assume that your discomfort equals sickness. Give your body, and your emotions the benefit of the doubt. Do your best to tolerate, trust and value your feelings, even if you don’t always understand them.
Learning how to effectively set boundaries/call a time out until later may be vital to being able to respond skillfully
The worst loneliness is not being comfortable with yourself. -Mark Twain
Are you on good terms with yourself? Your relationship with yourself is very important to your happiness. Still, this key relationship may spend a lot of time flying right under your radar.One way to find out how this relationship is going is to listen in on that inner conversation you carry on with yourself. When you talk to yourself (everybody does it) does it sound like you’re talking to a friend, an enemy, or an unruly child? If you are using an aggressive tone with yourself, you’re not alone.
Many of us pick up this way of talking to ourselves when we’re children. It’s hard to protect yourself when you’re a child and someone keeps attacking you. One thing you might do to cope is to start talking to yourself in the same nasty way. At least then you’re the one in control.
So you probably brought that aggressive voice inside a long time ago to feel safer. Unfortunately, sometimes you end up carrying it around long after the original aggressor is gone. Therapists call these inner aggressors “interjects.”
So what can you do if an internalized jerk is making your life miserable? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Notice how you talk to yourself. When the inner jerk rears it’s ugly head try to relax and have some compassion for yourself. Remember, that misguided jerk inside is trying to protect you.
2. Practice being gentle with yourself. Say something kind. It can be difficult at first but keep at it. Practice treating yourself like a friend who deserves love and respect. You do!
3. Notice when you put conditions on loving yourself. Take a break from trying to improve yourself. You’re a person, not a project. You deserve to be loved for who you are right now.
4. If you look underneath the things your inner jerk keeps telling you, you’ll often find some deeply held, negative beliefs:
“I’m damaged”…”I don’t deserve love”…
If you don’t notice these are just beliefs, you’ll probably keep believing them.
5. Try out a different belief:
I’m unique and beautiful. I deserve love.
6. When you’re confused about something, have a conversation with yourself, or a Higher Power. There are a lot of wise voices in there too.
Photos: “Almost ready” by Infrogmation (top) and roseoftimothywoods at http://flickr.com/photos/madfox/29367611/ (bottom)
This article is copyright 2010, Lee Scher, L.P.C.. All rights reserved.
As a longtime student of Buddhism, over the years I’ve listened to many of my teachers cast “ego” as a villain. According to these teachings, we spend a great deal of our time trying to prop up a fictional sense of “me,” fighting off the reality that we are not independent, unchanging entities, but part of a interdependent, fluid process. In our struggle to maintain this comforting illusion of permanence (Trungpa Rinpoche called it “the battle of ego”) we cause ourselves intense suffering. From this perspective, attaining egolessness is the key to wisdom and freedom.
In Western Psychological tradition “ego,” is seen as anything but a villain. It’s described as those functions in the human psyche which help us: 1. maintain a coherent sense of ourself 2. find safe and effective boundaries 3. find effective ways to further our own needs and those of society 4. find a balance between our desire for pleasure and our sense of ethics. These are all understood as vital, healthy psychic functions. From this perspective, when someone has a “weak ego”- when they are unable to maintain a stable sense of themselves, safe boundaries, or function effectively or ethically in the world- this causes a great amount of suffering.
So which is it? Is ego an unnecessary, maladaptive tendency or a collection of vital, healthy functions in the psyche? Shakyamuni Buddha cautioned students to beware of black and white thinking. He also encouraged students to test whatever teaching they were given in our own experience. So what do you think? Do you wish your ego was stronger and more developed, or is it a cause of suffering in your life? If you’re like me, you may have trouble choosing one or the other, as both points of view seem to hold some truth.
I first came to Buddhism in my twenties because my mind was causing me tremendous suffering. When I sat with my mind in meditation, I found that beneath a lot of the self-abuse I was heaping on myself in my thoughts was a belief that I was doing life wrong, and if I could only get it right, and be the person I should be, everything would be okay. Hearing the Buddhist teachings of emptiness (that life was not a game which I could ultimately win), impermanence (that there is ultimately no solid ground to find) and suffering (that discomfort is a natural part of life, but I could choose to not make it worse by blaming myself for being human)… helped me quell a lot of my inner strife and begin to adopt an attitude of unconditional acceptance and love towards myself and the world. It’s not an overstatement to say that I might not be alive today if I hadn’t heard these teaching, and at the very least have made my life much happier and more peaceful.
But after devoting myself to practicing Buddhism full-time for several years I found that I still seemed to have a very fragile sense of myself and still struggled to function in the world and in relationships. My search for answers eventually led me to a graduate program in psychology, and to finding medicine in psychological concepts like ego integrity, healthy boundaries, and self-care.
So my own experience has been that both of these traditions stories about ego contain helpful wisdom. One of my favorite pieces of wisdom from Shakyamuni Buddha is that any kind of medicine is only helpful if its given to the right person at the right time. My hope is that both Buddhist teachers and people working in mental health will come to a more whole, better integrated understanding of ego, and so will be more able to speak to the needs of their students/clients in the moment. My own experience has been that at some times it is very helpful for me to be reminded of the ultimate emptiness of trying to build oneself up, and at other times it is just as important to be encouraged in the mundane tasks of setting good boundaries, maintaining personal discipline and ethics, and following through with personal projects.
Let me know what you think. Where do you think your most important work lies right now? Is it in strengthening the activities of ego or seeing their transparent quality?